Two members of the British House of Lords are seeking to have the British authorities declare that the hanging of a County Galwayman 130 years ago a miscarriage of justice.
David Alton, Baron Alton of Liverpool, and Eric Lubbock, the fourth Baron Avebury are seeking a review of the case of Myles Joyce, alleged to have been involved in the Maamtrasna murders, and for the authorities to declare him the victim of a miscarriage of justice and to concede he was falsely convicted and executed.
The Maamtrasna Murders took place on August 17 1882 when a family of five were slaughtered in their mountainside cottage in the Lough Mask area on the Galway/Mayo border.
Ten men from the surrounding area were arrested and charged, and three - Pat Joyce, Pat Pádraig Shéamuis Casey, and Myles Joyce were found guilty and sentenced to death. Another five were sentenced to penal servitude.
The three were brought back to Galway Gaol where, shortly before they were hanged, Pat Joyce and Pat Casey admitted separately that they were guilty but that Myles was innocent. However the hangings went ahead on December 15 1882 and their bodies were buried in the grounds of the prison, in what is now the Cathedral carpark.
However the reliability of the trial, much of the evidence given, and the trustworthiness of some of the witnesses has since been called into serious question, leading to the current efforts of the two British lords.
A monoglot Irish speaker, Myles Joyce, who had no English, was defended in court in Dublin by a solicitor and barristers who spoke no Irish. The evidence he gave as Gaeilge was ignored in court. Evidence which might have helped his defence was withheld and the trial also heard from informers gave false evidence against him.
The judge and jury who convicted him had no Irish and the jury deliberated for less than six minutes to decide on his guilt before sentence of death was passed.
The case of Myles Joyce and the efforts to clear his name will be the subject of a series of events to take place in Galway on Saturday December 15. The events are being organised by the Office of An Coimisinéir Teanga, the Galway City Museum, and Conradh na Gaeilge.
The events begin with a Mass as Gaeilge in memory of Mr Joyce in the Galway Cathedral followed by the laying of wreaths on the spot where the gallows on which he was hanged stood.
A symposium in the Galway City Museum will hear contributions from historian NUI Galway’s Prof Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh and Lord Alton, whose mother came from the Tuar Mhic Éadaigh Gaeltacht bordering Maamtrasna. There will also be a contribution from Johnny Joyce from Dublin, a descendant of the Joyce family whose murder in Maamtrasna led to the conviction of Myles Joyce.
An exhibition, readings from historical material, and an RTÉ film about the Maamtrasna murders will also feature. Further elements of the event are to be announced later.
An Coimisinéir Teanga, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, said Mr Joyce’s case was one of most significant and distressing cases ever concerning the denial of language rights.
“At a time when the public’s language rights are confirmed in law,” he said, “we shouldn’t forget cases such as that of Myles Joyce which remind us of the difficulty of getting justice under the law in the past if you didn’t have English.”
He pointed out that Mr Joyce’s final words before being hanged were: Feicfidh mé Íosa Críost ar ball – crochadh eisean san éagóir freisin” - I will soon see Jesus Christ - he too was hanged unjustly.
“What happened to Myles Joyce is part of the history of the city, the county and the country,” said Breandán Ó hEaghra of the Galway City Museum. “Like any museum, we have an important role to play in presenting that history to the current generation and conserving these memories for future generations.”
Conradh na Gaeilge’s Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha said the case was both significant in contemporary British/Irish politics, and involved a number of possible miscarriages of justice.
“This Gaeltacht case led to a furious debate which raged for many years in Westminster,” he said. “It was one of the reasons William Gladstone’s Liberal government fell in 1885 when Irish MPs under Charles Stewart Parnell withdrew support and sided with the opposition Tories under the leadership of Randolph Churchill.”
He also pointed out that of the five others sentenced to penal servitude for life, two of those died in prison, and four of those prisoners were also believed to be innocent. In 1902 the three surviving prisoners - two brothers and a nephew of Myles Joyce - were freed having spent 20 years in gaol. Official records portray them as convicted murderers.